How to gamify your teaching: A quick guide to GBL

Nic Ponsford

Nicole is the digital leader of @WomenEd, leader of @WomenEd_Tech and founder of @gendercharter. Previously, she was an award-winning AST in Media and New Technologies. Nicole is passionate about gender equality being the ‘new normal’.

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Gaming seems to be more popular than ever. As a child of the late Seventies, just BEFORE Space Invaders, video gaming has become a phenomena since the turn of this century. Even as some were worrying about the Millennium Bug, others could not have been more immersed in computing. 2000 saw Sony launch the PlayStation 2 for a staggering $299.99 (£150); with a built-in DVD player and back compatibility with PS1 games; every one of the 500,000 consoles produced sold out on Day 1. Following this, the only bug associated with computers was the sweeping-craze for gaming. 2008 saw the first ‘Video-game Tournaments’, as video-games became a fast-growing spectator sport with big tournaments like Unreal (held at Wembley Stadium) and the Championship Gaming Series (USA). Now eSports tournaments like the MLG have millions of registers users, with winners gaining millions of dollars for one video-game

That same year the games industry worldwide was estimated to be worth $41 billion (£20.5 billion) overtaking Hollywood box office receipts and threatening to overtake music sales. In the US sales of games and game consoles grew by 57% despite the recent downturn in the economy. In 2014 gaming was estimated to be worth $2.3 trillion.

So. Gaming is not only here to stay - it is VERY popular (“trillion”, people!) with the trend of cross-platform gaming predicted for this year and more female-friendly attitude (we hope) post #gamergate. Video gaming has been steadily moving from out of the home and into school classrooms, but many teachers are still unclear how to access gaming or what the advantages are of integrating it into their lessons.

What is Gamification?

Wikipedia explains that “The gamification of learning is an educational approach to motivate students to learn by using video game design and game elements in learning environments. The goal is to maximise enjoyment and engagement through capturing the interest of learners and inspiring them to continue learning.”

Basically, games (video or otherwise) are used to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals. It taps into the needs and desires of the users to develop status and achievement. The mechanics in gamification are badges, points, levels, leaderboards and challenges.

What the Research Says…

My favourite gamer Jordan Shapiro, he has already written about this; his 'Mindshift' article explains the research, but also goes further into what is happening in classrooms, allowing us to get a clear picture. Firstly, we see that gaming is not ‘new’ in the classroom, nor is it for all. Shapiro writes:

“The 694 K-8 teachers surveyed have an average of 14.5 years of experience in the classroom. 30% of the teachers said the games are equally beneficial for all students. But there also seemed to be a trend that identified games as most beneficial for “low-performing students,” “students with emotional/ behavioral issues,” “student with cognitive or developmental issues.” 

In other words, students who have been labeled and/or diagnosed because they struggle within the traditional school environment, benefit from game-based approaches. From the study: “65% of teachers note that lower-performing students show increased engagement with content, versus only 3% who show a decrease.” This is good news.

In addition, 53% of teachers find that video games foster positive collaboration between students. Anyone who has watched kids play video games together has seen this trend: They give each other tips and advice, they share tricks. They teach each other to understand the games’ systems. No wonder gameplay YouTube videos are so popular. Gaming inherently involves systems-thinking which is best taught through collaborative learning. Still, 52% of teachers assign digital games as independent activities for students. Only about a third (34%) “assign digital games to groups of 3-5 students.” And only 29% “direct the whole classroom to use digital games together.”

What accounts for this preference toward independent gameplay among teachers? Perhaps it is leftover residue from an old paradigm that values individual achievement over collaboration”.

Shapiro concludes: “It’s becoming more apparent that teachers will need to do more than just embrace new technologies. They will also need to embrace the epistemological foundations of these technologies. There are connected, networked ways of knowing that will dominate the digital future. Sharing and collaboration go hand-in-hand with integrating non-competitive and non-commodified ways of playing. The way students play and learn today is the way they will work tomorrow.”

Key Gamification Findings in Classrooms

So what is happening in classrooms? In Autumn 2013, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (to which Shapiro contributes) surveyed 694 K-8 teachers from across the United States on whether and how they are using digital games with their students. Here are some key findings and recommendations from this research:

  1. Digital games have landed in K-8 classrooms with 74% using digital games for instruction.
  2. Gender does not predict digital game use in instruction, but younger teachers (those who teach at schools serving low-income students) and teachers who play digital games for their own pleasure are more likely to use games with their students.
  3. Teachers who use games more often report greater improvement in their students’ core and supplemental skills. Four out of five game-using teachers say their students primarily play games created for an educational audience, compared to just 5% whose students most often play commercial games. Eight percent of game-using teachers say their students mostly play a hybrid of the first two options—entertainment games that have been adapted for educational use.
  4. Most teachers instead report using short-form games that students can finish within a single class period rather than immersive games.
  5. Educators who do not teach with digital games are more likely than game-using teachers to report that they are “not sure how to integrate games” into their teaching, suggesting how consequential this uncertainty can be. That said, 80% of digital game-using teachers wish it were easier to find curriculum-aligned games, and just 39% believe that a sufficient variety of such games even exist.
  6. Teachers are learning to teach with digital games via more informal means (ie from fellow teachers and by self teaching) than formal training programs (ie, pre-service and in-service). As a result, teachers may not be getting exposure to the broader range of pedagogical strategies, resources, and types of games that can enhance and facilitate digital game integration.
  7. Nearly three quarters (71%) of digital game-using teachers report that games have been effective in improving their students’ mathematics learning. However, only 42% report the same about their students’ science learning, despite research suggesting that games are well suited for teaching complex scientific concepts.
  8. Only 37% of game-using teachers report digital games as being effective in improving students’ social skills, which is low compared to other skills queried. But teachers whose students primarily play together (in pairs, small groups, as a whole class) were more likely to report improvements in student social skills than teachers whose students play alone.

It illustrates the need for more curriculum-specific games and training. They seem (currently) to support some subjects more than others and aimed more at the vulnerable students.

What to Read First

Games and Learning - Make this your first pit stop. Amazing site for the novice and experienced teacher alike. Full of exciting articles and tips, like this Top Trends of 2014 piece. Then try The Mindshift Guide to Digital Games and Learning. A collection of articles on what it says on the tin. Inspirational.

Still unsure or have SLT who frown when you mention ‘games’? Try this article from the Institute of Play. 

Some inspirational, practical and evidence-based articles from the Joan Ganz Cooney Centre (research based):

Where to Start: Gaming Sites

  • Learning Games for Kids
  • Question-Quest - Helps improve English language skills, with loads of photocopiable resources online.
  • BrainPop - The ‘Game Up’ section includes links to specific curriculum games (from core subjects to vocational), detailed Game Guides, fantastic gaming Tips for teachers, and options for students to track their own progress, like in ‘GutsandBolts’.
  • AmplifyLearning - Incredible games that will turn even the biggest anti-gamer heads, albeit it a parent, curriculum lead or SLT member.
  • Minecraft. Heard of it and want to jump in? Try MinecraftTeacher if you want to follow one blogger on this. Or you could check out MinecraftEducation for tips, case studies and a lively community. ArtTechTeacher also has heaps of exciting articles on his blog.
  • Want to create cartoons? Who doesn’t?! Try Toontastic.
  • Vanished - Try this article to get to know Vanished. Excellent for STEM.
  • Algebra your thing? Try Dragon Box. If the cool name doesn’t pull you in, Shapiro’s thumbs-up review will.

If you feel I have missed any off from the list, or have any comments about above, I’d love to hear from you!

Have you gamified your teaching? Share your experiences in the comments!

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